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Reputation leaves Harper in limbo

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Posted: Wednesday March 29, 2000 12:06 PM

By Albert Lin,

BOSTON -- You can't help but feel sorry when you talk to Jerome Harper. The South Carolina native is in basketball limbo after earning a label as a problem child. The worst part? Harper doesn't seem to understand the gravity of his situation.

Harper is soft-spoken, quick with a smile and even cocks his head thoughtfully when considering a reporter's question. It is easy to see how why he is nicknamed "Buddy." He does not appear to be the kind of person who would have had the misadventures he's had in the last 10 months. "I've been through a lot of stuff," he says simply.

He signed with Cincinnati in December, but the Bearcats rescinded their scholarship offer when Harper was arrested the day the rosters for the McDonald's All-American Game were announced. Coach Bob Huggins didn't even call to let him know; Harper found out in the newspaper.

The charges, which were dropped, stemmed from a 10-day-old incident in which he stepped into the middle of an argument between his aunt and her boyfriend. The police report said Harper was grabbed by the neck and threw a punch to defend himself. But the altercation only seemed to the popular perception of Harper. "I feel like I have something to prove," he says. "Everybody thinks I'm a bad person, everybody is making me out to be a bad guy." To illustrate this point, he relates a story from Monday night here in Boston: While he was in his hotel room doing homework, there was a food fight going on down the hall. He found out later that one of the chaperones said, "I betcha Harper had something to do with it."

Even though he's a free agent and one of the best wing players and athletes in the country, Harper says he has not heard from a single program since Cincinnati dumped him. He hasn't talked to any of his McDonald's teammates about possibly going to their schools. His plans seem to boil down to the NBA or junior college -- he scoffs at the notion of prep school -- yet he has not taken an active role in determining his NBA prospects and hasn't looked at any jucos.

One of the reasons Division I schools have stayed away from Harper is that he is not expected to qualify. Last summer, in an attempt to shore up his shaky academic situation, he enrolled in classes at prep power Oak Hill Academy. But after leaving to attend the adidas ABCD Camp, he was not welcomed back. He then transferred to Washington College Academy in Limestone, Tenn., with his brother, Alexander, but was reportedly booted in mid-September. This is another case, he says, of misinformation. "They weren't feeding us," he says. "No meals -- we were just getting snacks." He arrived back at Keenan High School in Columbia, averaged 24 points and eight rebounds and led the team to the state title.

Clearly, Harper is one of those kids that needs guidance. Left without, he is in danger of falling through the cracks. But all is not lost. Former McDonald's All-American Lamar Odom has found success despite a senior year with as many stops as Harper's. Another prep star who followed a circuitous route, Alabama's Schea Cotton, looks like he will get a shot at the NBA.

"I know I can play at that level," Harper says. "Playing against competition will just make me better. It's all a mind game; you just have to be focused."

Focused? His senior year has been anything but.

Related information
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McDonald's All-American Game: Miles above the rest?
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